A funny thing happened

Stand-up comic Lawrence Leung didn't seek it, buthe has becomean inspiration to Chinese-Australians with hit showsat home and abroad, writes Sue Green

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 November, 2012, 8:19pm

Lawrence Leung didn't plan to become a role model. His stand-up comedy and high-rating television shows do not draw on issues such as racism, a goldmine for some of Australia's "ethnic" comedians. Nor does he make jokes about Chinese culture and his background - all those Saturday mornings at Cantonese school, for instance. 

Yet Melbourne-based Leung, whose parents Doris and Leo moved from Hong Kong to Australia, gets fan mail from many young Chinese-Australians for just that reason.

"I don't think I would jump on my own ethnic background to make jokes out of it," he says. "I guess in one way, by just representing myself as myself, that does the same thing. People aren't looking at me as the stereotype of an ethnic comedian."

Leung, who runs his own "chunnel" on YouTube, says he has many Asian fans - every now and then he looks down from the stage at a comedy festival and realises most of the audience is Chinese. "I have had e-mails saying, 'Thanks for being an Asian face on TV'. I did not set out to be a role model, but I think for some people what I'm doing appeals to their sense of identity."

His shows screened on ABC, the national broadcaster, and Leung says that having an Asian face on a mainstream channel "maybe shows how far Australia has come without actually saying, 'Look at this'. Maybe I am an ethnic comedian without trying to be one".

Like many Chinese-Australian children, "I was raised to be a doctor. I got very strong encouragement from my parents to work very hard at my studies with the aim of becoming a doctor," Leung says.

"I have always had a creative streak, I always wrote short stories when I was a child and my teachers always said, 'This is great, can you read this in front of the class?' Whenever people create work, stories, stand-up, plays, they don't exist in a vacuum, they need an audience and often people's audience is themselves. I've always had the urge to show people my stories."

Leung began doing stand-up as a distraction while studying psychology at Melbourne University. Through that he met like-minded students and together they formed a comedy group, The Improbables.

"I had a choice between performing comedy and doing further study to become a psychologist and the comedy took over," he says.

While his parents were "suspicious of whether I could support myself by doing something that was fun", not only have they not opposed his choice of career, they have joined in.

His 2008 series Lawrence Leung's Choose Your Own Adventure saw him trying out all those Boys' Own-style adventures so many young men wish they'd had - including pro wrestling and breakdancing on the streets of Los Angeles. And he was supervised through each episode by good sports Doris and Leo sitting on the couch in matching tracksuits.

"I don't do family-style comedy, but it seemed quite natural for me, when I was doing the television show, to include [my parents], mainly because the show was about trying to reclaim youth," he says.

It is one of several successful television series, most based on his image as a nerdy guy who can solve a Rubik's cube puzzle in minutes but has no luck with women. "Some of it is my personal storytelling, the embarrassing moments of my life, awkward situations, but a lot of it is based on my nerdy obsessions - things that fascinated me might end up on my show," he says.

In Lawrence Leung's Unbelievable (2011), a kind of comedy-documentary, Leung travels the globe investigating the paranormal, illusion and deception. And earlier this year he appeared as one of the "agony uncles" in the ABC advice series of that name - although in keeping with his stage persona, Leung says his advice was mostly about what not to do.

Leung, whose website describes him as a "purveyor of choice stories and jokes", has also made numerous short videos - check out his magic videos on his website or the hilarious clips from his multi-award winning, stand-up shows including Lawrence Leung Wants a Jet Pack (the painful encounter with a former girlfriend is particularly recommended).

He has performed internationally since 1991, but a big break came in July this year when he sold out a two-week run of shows in London's Soho, winning rave reviews and having his show, Beginning Middle End, moved to a bigger theatre.

"I decided to try something different. A lot of my solo shows are about me going off on quests. Most recently, just to keep things new for myself, I decided to just tell stories from my life. I was aware that I was getting a new audience from my television shows."

So while those early shows portrayed him as young, fun and silly, he wanted to show the other side of himself: "That I am not the happy-go-lucky guy you think I am."

Leung says comedy, like clothes, has its fashions - "it goes through certain waves, much like the waves of immigration, or the context of the moment," he says. "The next generation might be the Sudanese comedians, there already are a couple, there are some awesome comedians who take very political stands on issues."

With family still in Hong Kong Leung has visited the city many times, but never to perform. He says it is about time that changed.

Meanwhile, he is working on a feature film which he is co-writing with the director. It is based on Sucker, his first solo show, and he will play his adult self while someone else will be cast as the young Lawrence.

He has been published in magazines and is a regular guest on writers festival panels. So it was a logical next step to write one of the chapters in a book, The Emerging Writer, an insider's guide filled with advice.

Leung found that writing about his journey - which included a "boring office job" until he was able to support himself - was in line with his own view of himself: a writer who performs his material in many ways, rather than purely a comedian.

There are myriad other gigs that enable him to pay the bills without an office job - hosting a spelling bee, writing another television show and a gig at the Sydney Opera House, during which he will read a short story while a comic book artist draws pictures behind him.

His parents have got over wanting him to be a doctor, he says. "My parents just want to be proud of their kids, for them to be good at what they are doing."

So what about his brother, is he also an entertainer? "No, he's a pharmacist."